According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2005), by the year 2014 there will be 197,000 job openings in the life and physical sciences, 507,000 engineering positions, and over 1.3 million jobs in computer and mathematics-related fields because of both new positions and retirements. However, there has been no growth in the education sector in these fields, and it is predicted the labor sector will be unable to keep up with the demand in these areas (Tytler et al., 2008). Less than a decade ago, the United States ranked 73rd out of 91 countries surveyed in the percentage of students graduating from colleges with degrees in science and math (National Science Board, 2006). These deficiencies have resulted in an urgent ongoing need for a more scientifically literate citizenry and increasing recruitment into science, technology, engineering, and math-related careers at a young age (Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, Committee on Undergraduate Science Education 1999; National Science Foundation 1996).
Science literacy, as defined by the National Research Council (1996), is “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity” or understanding basic science skills. It is necessary to engage people in science when they are young to produce science literate adults (Butler, 2009). Even if educators engaged students when they were young and students exhibited spontaneous interest in science and math, they often became fearful or disdainful of math and science (Rutherford and Ahlgren, 1991). Students, in particular, did not see science as connected with society or offering ways to improve peoples’ lives, and regarded it as disconnected and removed from their own daily lives (Butler, 2009).
Most students who have become interested in science did so during middle school or earlier and attributed their interest to some specific education-related science-based experience (Maltese and Tai, 2009). According to Turner and Patrick (2008), students must be motivated to learn by tapping into their interests and by making science learning relevant to their experienced lives (Butler, 2009). Young people tend to be interested in those things around them with which they can directly connect, such as nature, the environment, and how things work (Turner and Patrick, 2008). Once engaged, research has suggested, it is necessary to address specific scientific principles to ensure students drew the connection between their experience and science (Mantzicopoulos et al., 2008). Furthermore, behaviors associated with intellectual challenge, interest, and engagement in science concepts included involvement with experimental work, problem solving, and interpretation and inference from observation as opposed to the tasks typically found in classrooms, such as memorization and recitation of facts (Tytler et al., 2008). Some research suggests that such activities were seen as real by students and that science learning was enhanced by participation in such enrichment activities as field trips, family science events, and clubs (Tytler et al., 2008). According to Tytler et al. (2008), greater attention needs to be paid to informing young people of the actualities of careers in science.
The popularity of using gardening and nature to teach science by incorporation of hands-on techniques and connection to lived experience has increased in the last several years. School gardening in particular has been a popular area of research in the fields of horticulture and education in recent years to investigate children’s learning outcomes from interactions with plants and nature (Klemmer et al., 2005; Pigg et al., 2006; Robinson and Zajicek, 2005; Skelly and Bradley, 2000). Unfortunately, Skelly and Bradley (2000) found that gardening was used as an instructional tool less than 10% of the time even though teachers reported gardening activities enhanced student learning.
Reports of the specific academic benefits students gained from participating in school gardening varied (Danforth et al., 2008; Klemmer et al., 2005; Pigg et al., 2006). Klemmer et al. (2005) found the science achievement of students who participated in a hands-on gardening program and science curriculum was higher when compared with students who only participated in a traditional science curriculum. Danforth et al. (2008) found students participating in the NWF’s SYHP had statistically significantly higher math scores when compared with peers in schools using traditional curriculum. Alternatively, Pigg et al. (2006) found no statistically significant difference in science scores for students who participated in a hands-on gardening program. Their research concluded that more studies and curriculum development were needed to successfully implement garden and nature science education programs (Pigg et al., 2006).
Research has also looked at the effects of participating in outdoor science activities on children. These programs often design active hands-on outdoor activities and exercises to teach science-related topics and can provide a fun environment for children to learn and apply these concepts to real settings (Alexander et al., 1995; Waliczek et al., 2003). Waliczek et al. (2003) found students who were in these programs engaged in application skills. This finding supported past research that showed school gardening programs provided children with the opportunity to apply school lessons (Braun et al., 1989).
The NWF’s SYHP is a certification process that schools are awarded after meeting certain criteria in the development of a wildlife habitat (NWF, 2011). Similar to the certification of a habitat through the NWF’s traditional Backyard Wildlife Habitat (BWH), both programs require that a yard has the four necessary elements to attract and sustain wildlife: food, water, cover, and a place to raise young. In addition to the NWF’s BWH program requirements, SYHP certification includes that the site be used as an educational teaching resource (NWF, 2011).
The SYHP connects students with their local environment using hands-on activities to enhance student learning and understanding of the application of learning outcomes to real-world experiences in science, environmental education, and stewardship (NWF, 2011). The purpose of this study was to determine if the SYHP was an effective method of teaching science as evidenced by student scores on the Stanford standardized science test and science grades of fourth-grade students in the HISD.
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